The DaPonte String Quartet’s programs this month — May 17-20 — will explore “The Passions of Youth,” with early works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and contemporary Chinese composer Tan Dun.

The Beethoven String Quartet No. 6 in B-flat Major (Op. 18, No. 6) is not a very youthful work, because Beethoven began composing Opus 18 when he was 28 and had already written masterpieces in other forms. It is, however, his first venture into a medium dominated by Mozart and Haydn, and it has plenty of youthful exuberance.

Beethoven’s father hoped that his son would have a career as a child prodigy like Mozart, but it was not to be. The boy had plenty of talent at age 7 (his father said he was 6), but was nowhere near as cute and well-connected as Mozart. Beethoven would spend years in the trenches as a church organist, piano teacher and itinerant musician before his genius was recognized.

The Mendelssohn String Quartet in E-flat Major (Opus 12) does qualify as juvenilia, since it was written when the composer was 14. Although Mendelssohn’s genius was recognized early, it seemed normal in a very prosperous and musical family, and no attempt was made to exploit it commercially. On the other hand, his first quartet shows many more signs of immaturity than Beethoven’s.

Tan Dun is best known for his film score to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but has composed many other major works in a personal idiom that fuses traditional Chinese music, the classics and contemporary influences from Schoenberg to Phillip Glass.

His “Eight Colors for String Quartet,” written when he was 29,  was the first piece  he completed after coming to New York from China in 1986. 

Tan Dun also showed early evidence of musical talent, which turned out to be unconquerable. Sent to plant rice on a commune during the Cultural Revolution, he organized peasants into a band using whatever was available — rocks, water, paper, and pots and pans — learned traditional Chinese instruments, and eventually was drafted by a touring company of the Peking Opera, which needed a cello player.

Of “Eight Colors,” he writes:  “(It) was the first piece I wrote after coming to New York in 1986. It shares the dark, ritualized singing, very dramatic form and attention to tone, color and dynamic with my pieces written in China, such as ‘On Taoism’ but still is very different from them. This string quartet (together with ‘In Distance’ and ‘Silk Road’) marks the period of my first contact with the concentrated, lyrical language of Western atonality. From it, I learned how to handle repetition, but otherwise responded in my own way, out of my own culture, not following the Second Vienna School. 

“I drew on Chinese colors, on the techniques of Peking Opera — familiar to me since childhood. The work consists of eight very short sections, almost like a set of brush paintings, through which materials are shared and developed. The subjects are described by the eight interrelated titles, and form a drama, a kind of ritual performance structure. Not only timbre, but the actual string techniques are developed from Peking Opera; the vocalization of opera actresses and Buddhist chanting can be heard.

“Although a shadow of atonal pitch organization remains in some sections of this piece, I began to find a way to mingle old materials from my culture with the new, to contribute something to the Western idea of atonality and to refresh it. I found a danger in later atonal writing to be that it is too easy to leave yourself out of the music. I wanted to find ways to remain open to my culture and open to myself.”

After writing recently about Saint-Saens, who could play all of the Beethoven piano sonatas from memory at the age 10, it almost seems that precocious musical ability is a necessary,  but not sufficient, condition for the development of great composers. It is easier to think of examples — Brahms, Dvorak, Strauss, Chopin — than to conjure up exceptions to the rule.

It continues to this day. Benjamin Britten composed his first work at the age of 5. John Cage thought he wanted to be a writer — his works often seem more literary than musical — but his fourth-grade piano teacher thought him more interested in sight reading than in becoming a virtuoso. Neither of his parents was musical, which brings up another condition for great composers: Coming from a musical family.

The DaPonte performances, in chronological order, will be in Thomaston, Falmouth, Damariscotta and Topsham. Visit daponte.org for performance times and ticket prices.

 

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]